ROBERT HIGHT: "WE DON'T NEED HELP, WE'RE CAPABLE OF WINNING ON OUR OWN"
Jimmy Prock is a man who speaks few words; Robert Hight is a driver who needs few reminders. Together their actions speak volumes.
Hight, on the strength of a Ron Capps first round loss and a semi-final finish at the NHRA Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas, thundered into the Funny Car point lead with one race left in the 2017 season.
Earlier in the season, when the Auto Club Camaro was qualifying good yet not racing well at all, the two met to talk things over.
"Jimmy Prock’s exact words were, 'We need to have our act together by the time the Western Swing comes around. If we go out west and we’re still struggling and not consistent, it’s going to be a long rest of the year," Hight recalled.
Hight didn't need to capture the sage advice on a post-it note. The moment Prock spoke, it became ingrained in his mind.
Hight and Prock were reunited back in March, after a long four-year separation. This time they added Chris Cunningham into the mix. While running decent in the early going of this year, they began to regain the composure which netted them a championship back in 2009 as spring moved to summer.
In July, Hight won Denver, then went to Sonoma, where he qualified No. 1 and lasted until the quarter-finals. He rebounded after Sonoma, qualifying No. 1 and driving his way into the winner's circle at Seattle. He left Seattle as the No. 3 ranked driver and at the next race grabbed both ends of the Funny car world record. By the end of the regular season Hight had pulled into second in the point standings.
"At that point, I’m thinking, ‘Boy, our game plan is right where it needs to be.," Hight admitted.
Hight, a vocal baseball fanatic, is admittedly a .500 hitter which in the major league world is an incredible record. But in drag racing, it's not as advantageous. However, in the world of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, the Countdown can be a magic reset button.
"We wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a reset," Hight said of his current point lead. "The Countdown has fixed this and Jimmy is right, we had to get our act together, start winning and hitting our stride at the right time and we did."
Hight has become accustomed to the ups and downs of a traditional home run hitter. This season he's been in the tenth spot in the points and up to fifth before dropping to sixth. One race later he was fourth. In the first 12 races of the regular season, he'd only reached the final round twice, losing both.
"That’s exactly what this sport is about," Hight said. "If you can’t handle that you definitely don’t need to be in it. You’ve got to take the good and the bad. It’s really all about just believing in your team. When Mike Neff and I were together it seemed like when he was on, I was off. When I was on, he was off. We just never got clicking.
"Jimmy and I, we’ve been clicking since we started. Capps is the same way. When he was killing it early in the year winning all those races we knew you can’t keep that up forever, although he’s done a pretty good job. He’s still right up there in the thick of things and winning races. But he’s not winning races like he was early in the year either."
Such a rollercoaster of emotions has taught Hight the necessity of developing a thick-skin.
"You have to have it," Hight admitted. "You can’t make everybody happy. Obviously, the most important ones are the sponsors, trying to build a fan base because without a fan base the sponsor isn’t going to stay with you. The driving talent [in this class]– well when I first started in 2005 it wasn’t this competitive. You didn’t need to go out there and cut .50 or .60 lights every round to be in the game, so it has changed.
"Luckily we’ve all been able to adapt over here and get better. I don’t think the funny car class has been competitive as it is right now. I also don’t think that you’re ever going to see somebody do what we did in 2009 with sitting in the tenth spot and going to win a championship. This is not going to happen anymore with the competition level."
The thick-skin also comes in handy when he hears the hushed, and sometimes not-so-hushed tones of race-manipulation allegations making him the beneficiary. There are times when Hight believes the controversial 2009 NHRA U.S. Nationals race between him and John Force overshadows the feat his team pulled off in going from tenth to champion.
"That’s where you need to have a thick skin, and you know what to believe," Hight said. "I don’t want to take anything away from what we accomplished. I think it’s an insult to the hard work and the dedication of my team."
Hight entered eliminations at Indy as the No. 1 qualifier in an event where JFR cars were four of the top five qualifiers in Funny Car. He was low elapsed time for the first round and in the quarters was .001 slower than Force and Tony Pedregon. The biggest question of the questionable semi-final race was Force's extremely tardy reaction time, and car drifting out of the groove early in the run.
Fast forward to two weeks ago in Las Vegas, and Hight outqualified Force by .048 and was quicker than his John Force Racing teammates by a large margin in winning the first round.
"I don’t think anybody can argue that since July, the best funny car in the class has been the Auto Club Camaro," Hight said. "Nobody can say that I shouldn’t be in this position right now. We deserve to be in this position from our performance and what we’ve done. We’re going to into Pomona and try to have the same performance if we can. Our goal is to try to stretch this lead to two rounds and with points-and-a-half there that could happen.
"If we go in there and do what we did in Seattle and get every qualifying point possible, qualify number one, we have a shot at making Capps have to go two rounds further than us, and that would be huge come Sunday morning."
Hight believes the only help he needs is for his Auto Club team not to beat itself.
"What we need help with is to not beat ourselves," Hight said. "We need to not smoke the tires; we need to not drop cylinders, I need to not red light or be late. Very seldom do we go out there and somebody outruns us, and everything goes right for my car. If my car has eight cylinders and it goes down the track, I’d say 99.9% of the time I’m going to win if I’m on time on the starting line."
For those who suggest hanky-panky was going on in the second round at Las Vegas, including Fox Sports announcer Tony Pedregon, whose skepticism runs deep of Force's motives, Hight says the facts speak for themselves. Regardless of Force's tardy reaction time and driving out of the groove.
"Look at who’s been the best Funny Car out there since Denver," Hight added. "Qualified number one more than anybody, won more races than anybody, more round wins, everything. Set both ends of a national record."
But this weekend, with 30 points at stake per round win, Hight is ready for the battle to settle the title.
"I think it creates excitement for the fans and I think it guarantees that the champions are not going to be crowned until Pomona and that’s what NHRA wants," Hight said. "That’s why we started a Countdown so that somebody just doesn’t run away with it. I don’t make the rules. We have to abide by them, and if this is what NHRA believes is best for the sport, I’m good with it.
"Just like the Countdown, I’ve lost the Countdown and won the championship because of the Countdown. In 2007 I would have been the champ if there hadn’t been a Countdown that year, the first year of the countdown.
"In 2009 I had no chance of winning the championship if it wasn’t for the Countdown so it can work against you and it can help you."
And Hight reiterates, he doesn't need help to fight his battles.